About the project – University of Copenhagen

Processing Nature Anew

Based on ethnographic and archival studies this project explores the nature of natural
goods in global times. Combining the disciplines of ethnology, anthropology and
history, the aim is to investigate the ways in which globally distributed raw materials
become configured as they are processed in different settings, then and now. Instead
of seeing natural goods as stable products, the idea is to explore them as mutable and
co-constituted by the practices of handling them, whether extraction practices,
marketing procedures, stock assessment, international quality control or other.

By exploring and comparing different natural goods, both where they are
reaped and in the paperwork enveloping them, we suggest that raw materials can be
investigated as manufactured outcomes of people’s engagements with them. If this is
so, natural goods emerge as heterogeneous objects that in themselves comprise
shifting qualities and values and imply awkward connections between disparate
people, things, places and moments. In such cultural analytical perspective nature
cannot be seen as pristine, but rather as enfolding politics, particular histories and
global inequality. Essentially we ask how natural goods are natural if they are
constituted by people’s practices of processing, as much as by metals, oxidants,
carbohydrates or proteins. How are we to understand raw materials if these are and
have been fraught with political, colonial and economic relations between first and
third worlds? The overall ambition is to provide an original take on global nature by
investigating its goods then and now as fundamentally emergent objects generated by
the people who process them within and across contexts.

Our approach is to analyze the processing of each of the selected goods in
light of the others, yielding ample comparative scope in terms of the goods’ respective
qualities such as origin, durability, producibility and travelling capacity. Further, the
goods are all linked to Danish historical records as they come from sites of prior
trading and colonial interest, enabling an historical perspective on global connections.
Accordingly, the project thus provides a cultural analysis of both nature and
globalisation as these two phenomena are seen as co-producing each other. To ensure
further synergy, the goods will each be analyzed as they are processed in two settings,
namely where the materials originate and in the business or bureaucratic structures
handling them.

A strong ambition of the project is to explore new methodological
terrain. Approaches dubbed multi-sited ethnography have been advocated as means of
exploding an outdated view of ethnography as dealing with bounded wholes. While it
is appropriate to come to grips with global forces, in this project, however, we want to
engage a single field, namely natural goods. This one field of study, whether based on
contemporary or historical sources, is continuously constituted in manifold ways by
historical inventories, global distribution, bureaucracy, rainfall, dynamite, colonialism
and so on, as well as – importantly – by the shared analytical interest of the project’s
participants. This is to say that we view natural goods as made through the joint
efforts of the objects in question, informants, researcher and other researchers. We,
too, process and thus generate natural goods by way of our very collaboration and
analytical interest. As part of the output of the project, we will make a virtue of this by
way of dynamic exhibition work.

We seek to move ethnography further by employing a radical view of its
object – be it nature or other – as an emerging phenomenon, co-constituted by matter
and meaning, collaborative to the core. The promise of this approach is to face headon the long-lived and crippling distinctions in cultural analytical disciplines between
local and global, micro- and macro-approaches, raw facts and well-cooked stories, lay
and expert knowledge, nature and culture, to name a few. Now seems the time to offer
more refined and daring analyses of global nature by seeing its goods as cutting across
these spheres.

We are extremely grateful to the Danish Research Council for Independent Research
for funding the project through the Sapere Aude Programme. For further information, please contact project leader Frida Hastrup: hastrup@hum.ku.dk